The Screaming Skull is a short horror story by F. Marion Crawford, author of The Upper Berth and For the Blood is the Life. I’ve only read The Screaming Skull and The Upper Berth but I’d like to find a copy of his The King’s Messenger and Man Overboard. They don’t seem collected that often.
The Upper Berth is a pretty straightforward ghost story about a haunted stateroom aboard an ocean-going steamer. It’s always been a tie between them on which is my favourite. The Screaming Skull is interesting because, without the epilogue, it could be seen as an unreliable narrative.
Fair warning for spoilers ahead for The Screaming Skull.
The Screaming Skull – Synopsis
The Screaming Skull is written in the style of a retired seaman speaking to his guest and friend who also appears to be a retired seafarer. The guest is unnamed throughout the narrative.
In his younger days, the sea captain was friends with a married couple named The Pratts. Dr. Pratt and his wife were not on the best of terms. Luke, the husband, is the seaman’s cousin. One evening at dinner The Captain (he also is unnamed throughout) tells a story about a woman who widowed herself three times by murdering her husbands.
Her method was to melt some lead and pour it into their ear while they were sleeping. An ingenious method and should have been just a story but Dr. Pratt listened carefully and murdered his wife in the same way. The Captain felt very guilty and blamed himself for giving him the idea.
After her murder, the husband took back the skull, whether from guilt or not wanting to be found out and he himself was murdered. Something tore out his throat. Since their son had died the house went to The Captain, who found a skull in a hatbox in a cupboard in the master room.
The Captain details his efforts to sleep in he master bedroom but was constantly wakened by a sort of gasp and rustle, presumably the sounds of the murder. The skull also screams occasionally. Particularly if it’s removed from its cupboard. The Captain tries to get rid of it several times but it always comes rolling back to its home.
The Captain tries to show his guest but, even though the hatbox is tied and sealed with wax the skull is not within. But a chunk of lead comes out of the box, having fallen out of the skull. The skull comes back that evening and The Captain tries to explain it away by the sexton possibly having stolen it and resealed the box and the winds blew it back to the cottage.
The story ends there. Except for an epilogue, a newspaper article stating that The Captain had been found dead, his throat having been crushed and torn by an apparent madman missing the bottom two teeth, the same teeth that Mrs. Pratt had missing.
The Screaming Skull lends itself really well to audio narration as it sounds like someone is speaking to you and telling you a story. The Upper Berth is told in much the same manner.
The story interests me because it’s very well crafted. It gives you the information in the dialogue without making it seem forced or information-heavy. It feels very much like a chat, not exposition. Throughout the story The Captain blames himself heavily for the Doctor’s crime, feeling as though if he hadn’t told the story then the Doctor would have never gotten the idea of murdering her.
Personally, I feel like if the Doctor was so dead set on murdering his poor wife (pardon the pun) he would have done it regardless of any story. A doctor, I’m sure, could have found a way to murder someone without there being any sign of it, especially in such a primitive forensic period.
However, the skull apparently blames him, too as it does murder him in the end. Which is really kind of a crappy thing to do. And the epilogue never really says what happened to the skull afterward. Did it roll itself back into its hatbox on the shelf? Roll itself into the ocean? Without the epilogue, it could very much be the story of a man manifesting his guilt for having ‘murdered’ her.
Until the very end there’s not even really any proof the skull is in the house. I wonder if it would have been a better story with that layer of ambiguity if Crawford had left the end off? I’m inclined to think that the end of the story probably would have been better without the epilogue. The ending is still pretty solid as to whether the skull exists or not and it would leave some room for guesswork on what becomes of it and The Captain. Would he be killed b it? Live in an uneasy cohabitation?
The Screaming Skull was made into a movie surprisingly enough not starring Vincent Price and promises to bury you if you died of fright during the showing. You would think with a tagline like that it would be a William Castle production but I can’t find any connection to him.
There’s also very little connection to the plot at large beyond the husband having possibly murdered his first wife. I remember watching it once about fifteen years ago but remember very little about it. If I’m remembering correctly it turns out the husband is trying to drive his wife mad to get her money and did indeed do away with his first wife. If I’m wrong please correct me down below!
On a side note, that was a popular plot device for a while in the fifties and it also popped up in several eighties television shows. Murder, She Wrote (Reflections of the Mind) had an episode with that plot. As did Quantum Leap (A Portrait for Troian). There are probably more that I’m missing (I could swear there is a MacGyver episode, as well). That has always seemed like such a convoluted murder method, to me. And a lot of work. Maybe I’m just lazy but I am not putting that much effort into murdering someone.
I particularly liked the reading done on Casting the Runes and other Classic Stories of the Supernatural audiobook. The book in general is good so look for an upcoming review! If you have any other suggestions of F. Marion Crawford stories I should look for and if The Blood is the Life is worth a read, let me know below!
GracieKat was the first co-host of Sci-Fi & Scary, Lilyn’s partner-in-crime, and sub-head of the Kali Krew. She reviews horror books, movies, and games for the site. She also does a weekly Focus on the Frightful feature, and is the site list-maker. She is also in control of the Sci-Fi & Scary podcast which will relaunch soon.